This spring, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a personal tasting and cupping session by Sherry Dunbar of My Coffee Guru, a small roaster in Manchester, PA. I had met Sherry through an old friend just after I started reviewing coffee, and I had ended up reviewing a few of hers. Before starting her own shop, Sherry worked for Starbucks for eleven years; she has test roasted, cupped and rejected more coffee during that stint than most of us will drink in a lifetime. Her palette is pretty sensitive at this point. I was excited to sit around and drink coffee all morning with such an experienced guide.
Those of you that have taken part in a cupping know that describing a cupping this way is completely inaccurate. I didn’t drink any coffee at all that morning and we did all of our tasting standing up. Slurping coffee off of spoons is more akin to performing some kind of late night party trick than relaxing with a fresh cup of joe.
Sherry roasted eight different coffees for my tasting. There was a range of roasts, regions and flavors. The line-up was as follows: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia Sidamo, Ethiopia Harrar, Papa New Guinea and Sumatra. Sherry wanted me to compare the different characteristics and flavor possibilities through this wide variety of different coffees. This was a beginner’s cupping. The purpose of a professional cupping is often different — much of her experience was gained doing quality control and looking for defects from crop to crop and season to season. Sherry guesses she has participated in around 3000 cuppings over the years. That’s a lot of slurping as well as a fair amount of practice going through the process.
In order to properly compare coffees, standardization and repeatability are key. On the equipment side, for each coffee there was a tray of whole beans that were roasted and another unroasted to give an idea of the different roast profiles. Next to each pair of trays, Sherry had set an eight-ounce clear glass containing four tablespoons of the corresponding coffee beans. Two hot water kettles were at the ready, calibrated to 205 degrees. As the water approached the proper temperature, Sherry began grinding the beans, using a grind slightly finer than for an automatic drip. Next, she poured the water over the coffee in each cup and stirred briefly, leaving the grounds to settle to the bottom and a crust to form on the top. The crust forms a semi-permeable lid that helps keep the liquid hot and seal in some of the flavor. Several cups filled with hot water for rinsing the tasting spoons in-between dipping into the cups completed the set-up.
Once the coffee has steeped for its four minutes, the real work begins. You start the process by placing your nose a few inches from the top of the cup and breaking the crust. This involves just touching the top of the crust with your spoon and then moving the spoon up and down through it, being careful not to disturb the grounds that are already resting on the bottom. What you are attempting to do is release the aroma and raise it up to your nose. This is an important early step to get a feel for the coffee. Next, bring a spoonful of coffee up to your lips and slurp. It was right here that my expertise in the coffee world dissipated quicker than the aroma of three month old supermarket coffee. In the slurp you’re bringing the coffee over your tongue and teasing out the aromas onto your palette. I couldn’t do the slurp, at least not without almost choking myself. I could imagine sitting at home for hours on end slurping water off a spoon working on my technique. If you want to impress a fellow coffee taster, be loud. After the slurp, you want to have another cup ready to spit the coffee into. This is how you manage not to ingest too much caffeine and also how I managed to not drink any coffee.
Navigating the cupping process, I did manage to taste differences and identify some common characteristics of the coffees I tried. This being my first cupping the process did overwhelm me. I would highly recommend anyone that has an opportunity to participate in a cupping to do so. I learned about the coffee tasters flavor wheel and got to see Sherry’s roasting setup. I also learned a lot about the process and will hopefully be able to participate more in the next cupping as opposed to just trying to follow along. It was overall an eye-opening experience: we talked a lot about coffee and it was great to be able to go through this process with my own coffee guru.